One of Professor Bruce Rubidge’s very earliest memories is of collecting a wedge of concrete, vaguely shaped like a small fossil skull. In great excitement he leapt on his tricycle and pedaled at top speed to his grandfather Sidney Rubidge, to show him this fabulous discovery.
“My grandfather took it, and praised me for making a great find. The next time I saw it, he had chiseled little eyes, nostrils and teeth into it.”
The little ‘faux fossil’ is still in the Rubidge fossil collection.
Karoo Basin Through Time
Bruce Rubidge grew up on Wellwood Farm near Nieu-Bethesda with the finest Karoo fossil finders around him. Legends like James Kitching and Robert Broom often came to the farm to visit Bruce’s equally legendary grandfather, Sidney Rubidge.
The family now has several creatures named after it. Most of these roamed about during the Permian period more than 252 million years ago.
The most famous, Rubidgea, was a tiger-sized predator with alarmingly long canines, now mercifully extinct.
Bruce Rubidge went on to become head of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), discovering and describing ancient therapsids as well as temnospondyl amphibians.
His research is currently to understand the environment of the earliest land-living reptiles from Gondwana, and the changes in biodiversity during the Middle and late Permian Periods. By combining palaeontological and geological information he and his students are researching how the Karoo Basin developed through time.
During 2013 the University of the Witwatersrand restructured its palaeo-science research institutes by combining them into a single Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), and was also awarded an NRF Centre of Excellence. Rubidge is the director of both the ESI and the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences.
Professor Rubidge brushes aside any praise, making it seem that if he’d had any real talent, he’d be a farmer like his father Richard or brother Robert.
Driving a standard-issue white University bakkie from Nieu-Bethesda to the Lootsberg Pass, Rubidge points out to us the long level layers of sediment that characterise the hills of this dry heartland, left there by huge shifting rivers, carrying silt down from the Himalaya-like mountain ranges that stood north and south of the Karoo. Without the silt, there would have been no fossils preserved.
“This area of the Karoo is a paradise for palaeontologists. It’s an international treasure,” he says.
Near the top of the pass we scramble up the crumbling mudstone and actually see the fossils of small Lystrosaurus curled up in their burrows.
Somewhere up here is a distinct line recognisable to palaeo-geologists marking the dramatic Permian extinction and the beginning of the Triassic. Below it are many fossils. Above it, almost none.
Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre
Professor Rubidge started the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in the heart of Nieu Bethesda in 2005 to expose the public to the excitement of the ancient Karoo and its immense fossil wealth.
The Karoo, says Rubidge, is “the only place in the world where a time-extensive fossil record of the early diversification of reptiles is preserved in a single basin, chronicling the most distant evolutionary ancestry of mammals in remarkable detail.”
Ross Foxton, a retired businessman, donated a house in Nieu-Bethesda to serve as the headquarters and display facility for the Centre.
Within the building you’ll see fossils as life-sized reconstructed dicynodonts, and the fearsome gorgonopsian Rubidgea against the backdrops of ancient Karoo environmental scenes. In the centre you will learn how human evolution and existence rests on a long and continuous line of unlikely-looking beasts that have sidestepped extinction no fewer than five times.
Guides trained by the ESI at the University of the Witwatersrand will show you how to extract fossils from the hard shale and take you out along the Gats River to see the stone bones in situ.
You’ll be walking a path trodden by many ancient and modern animals. This is where Kitching had some of his richest finds.
- To find out more about the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, call (011) 717-6685